There are many types of saxophone within the family but which one is right for you? Let's begin by finding out a bit more about the saxophone and its origins.
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The Saxophone - A Brief Background
A Belgian born instrument maker / inventor by the name of Adolphe Sax developed and patented the saxophone in 1846. Adolphe was a clarinetist and flautist working in his father's music shop in Brussels. He wanted to design a new instrument that had the sound projection associated with a brass instrument but with the agility of a woodwind one. His invention combined the fingering pattern of an oboe with the single reed found on a clarinet, the result was an instrument with a very unique and fascinating sound. It is often miscategorised as a brass instrument, due to the material it is manufactured from, but it is actually a member of the woodwind family as the sound is produced using the vibrations of a reed, rather than your lips.
The saxophone is almost conical in shape and has between 20 and 23 holes (depending on size) which can be covered or opened in a variety of combinations to produce the required note. The fingering used is very similar to a flute or the upper register of a clarinet. They are generally found in Military, Concert, Swing and Jazz bands but more recently have been used in some orchestral works. They are also heard frequently in popular music tracks, probably one of the most famous being Gerry Rafferty's 'Baker Street'. Types of Saxophone
Since Adolphe Sax's original design(s) the saxophone has been tweaked and produced in many different sizes / forms. Today the family is typically made up of 4 main types which are the Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Baritone, however there are generally considered to be 9 recognised types within the extended family. As you will see from the table above, the sizes alternate in pitch between Eb & Bb. The Soprano is pitched 1 octave above the Tenor, the Baritone 1 octave below the Alto. Let's look in a little more detail at the most popular types.
The smallest of the main family, it has the highest pitch (Bb) and is generally considered a second instrument as it is not included as standard in concert or swing / jazz band sets. It's shorter length can make accurate tuning a little more difficult as there is less margin for error, so it is generally not recommended as a beginner instrument. There is a Curved Soprano version available, shaped in the recognisable sax style, that some tutors use for children too small for the Alto. However, in my opinion they are better to start on a clarinet, get to grips with using a reed and switch to Alto sax when they are physically big enough. For those players looking to invest in a Soprano Sax as their second instrument then Jupiter and Yamaha have some good quality options. If you really want to treat yourself, and your budget will stretch, then a Yanagisawa or Yamaha Custom are definitely worth a try.
The most popular choice of saxophone by far (pitched in Eb) it ticks all the boxes in terms of size, ease of learning and price. Most players of any type of saxophone will most likely have started on an Alto to 'learn their trade'. As musical instruments go it is relatively easy to make good initial progress on a saxophone and, unlike say a violin, it can sound tuneful even after only a few lessons. The options for Alto saxophones are huge and such choice can be quite overwhelming. My personal recommendations based on performance, value for money and reliability would be as follows: Beginner - Best on a budget is the Montreux SAS701. Intermediate - Yamaha all the way for me here, their entry level model the YAS280 is easily intermediate quality and their YAS480 is another fantastic step-up option in this middle range. Advanced / Professional - Yamaha feature well in my recommendations again here too with their YAS62 my all round 'top pick' for a great quality instrument at an unbeatable price point. If you still want to spend more though the Custom YAS875EX is first class.
This is the second most popular saxophone and gives a bit more depth to the music due to its larger size / lower pitch (Bb). The principles of playing are identical to the Alto but it does require more air to be blown through the mouthpiece to produce the sound. This makes it more difficult for younger children (who obviously have less developed lungs and are physically smaller) to play and hence is not usually purchased for a beginner. Most people skip the budget end when purchasing a Tenor sax as they have usually been playing for a while and are looking for an instrument that will last as their playing develops.
This is the 'Dad' of the sax family and the largest you'll see in most ensembles. (The only time I can personally recall hearing the larger Bass was in a performance of Leonard Bernstein's Westside Story). It is pitched in Eb and due to its size requires a huge volume of air to produce its full range of notes so is generally for more advanced players. It produces a wonderful, raw sound giving some real 'bottom end' to any ensemble. The Baritone Sax is an expensive option though and you won't be surprised to hear that the market is dominated by the same brand names I have referred to above.
Which one will you choose?
I hope I've given you a little more insight into the saxophone family and some indication of what type / make is suitable for the level you are playing at, as well as your budget. Although originally a euphonium player, I do occasionally dabble on the saxophone and find it a refreshing alternative that unlocks a whole range of musical styles that can become addictive. It is an instrument that offers the freedom to improvise (which is not so easily achieved in a brass band environment) so whichever type, make or model you choose, enjoy and have fun!